An experience to be savoured – Kari Kriikku with the NZSO

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:

– with Kari Kriikku (clarinet)
and Miguel Harth-Bedoya (conductor)

JIMMY LOPEZ – Peru Negro
KIMMO HAKOLA – Clarinet Concerto
WITOLD LUTOSLAWSKI – Concerto for Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington,

Friday, 30th October, 2015

The concert certainly lived up to its title – this was no genteel, well-manicured, orderly assemblage of dulcet, well-rounded tones, but a feisty, attention-grabbing trio of pieces which, thanks to on-the-spot advocacy from concerto soloist, conductor and players, certainly made a lasting impact.

Because of the sheer physicality of each of the works, as well as the presence of a soloist in the second piece who wasn’t backward in coming forward in every sense, the concert couldn’t help but take on something of a music-theatre feel. It usually happens that, whenever an orchestra’s percussion section has a lot to do, a strong element of visceral excitement comes cross to the audience because of the to-ing and fro-ing and the palpable gesturings of the players with, in almost every instance, immediate and spectacular results!

However, it wasn’t only the percussion who were working hard – under Miguel Harth-Bedoya’s energetic and flamboyant direction, every section of the orchestra pulled its weight and more, the players seeming to engage with the business of making the sounds come alive and interact with one another, often to exhilarating effect. The concert’s first piece, Jimmy Lopez’s Perú Negro, was written as a kind of evocation of what’s known as Afro-Peruvian music (a genre developed in the composer’s native Peru in the days when Spanish landowners brought African slaves to South America, thus mingling the cultures and producing various unique creative results, particularly in music).

Peruvian Jimmy Lopez (born in 1978) is a long-time friend of Miguel Harth-Bedoya, and in fact  the work is not only dedicated to the conductor, but has specific motivic figures based upon Harth-Bedoya’s initials. Certainly, the music’s vitality and volatility reflects the latter’s own interpretative style – the dancing rhythms, the brilliant orchestrations and the range of contrasts of mood and colour were all brought out here by the conductor and players to stunning effect.

I thought the piece’s only drawback was that it seemed to drive through an exciting and all-embracing crescendo towards a thrilling climax which recapped the spirit of the opening fanfares, but then attempted to try and revisit those same energies which had been so splendidly expended,  losing some of its shape in the attenuated process. Others will have undoubtedly felt differently and responded more wholeheartedly to the excitement’s continuation – despite the musicians’ commitment and the playing’s brilliance I felt the music outstayed its welcome, indulging in some needless repetition towards the end.

Still, the piece certainly sharpened our excitement’s edges in anticipation of the arrival of Finnish clarinettist Kari Kriikku, scheduled to play a concerto by his countryman Kimmo Hakola. I had seen and heard Kriikku in concert before, as long ago as 2009, but vividly recollecting his skill as a player, as well as the showmanship that seemed to be part-and-parcel of his character as a performer in appropriate contexts. Reading the opening paragraph of the description of Hakola’s work as per the programme, I sensed that the music would be pretty-well tailor-made for Kriikku’s skills as a performer and for the theatrical character he seemed to invariably bring to his interpretations.

In fact, the piece was commissioned by Kriikku, and first performed by him in 2001, so it’s obviously a work he’s lived with for some time, reflected by the immense skill with which he negotiated his solo part with all its complexities. But not only did the music ask questions of the soloist, it also taxed the skills of both conductor and players to the utmost, requiring some incredibly “dovetailed” interactions between orchestra and soloist and within the sections of the ensemble itself. I couldn’t fault the orchestral playing at any point throughout the panoply of sounds conjured up for us by the composer, for our delight and (in places) stupefaction!

After the first movement’s “game of chase” between the protagonists, a series of interactions that left notes scattered in their wake across whole vistas of exploration, the slow movement’s ‘Hidden Songs” brought out cool, limpid textures providing some relief from the corruscations that had gone before. In the soloist’s wistful four-note theme and the orchestra’s ostinato accompaniment I sensed something of Stravinsky’s claustrophobic enervations from ‘Le Sacre du Printemps”, a mood broken into by rhapsodic interpolations from the orchestra. These eventually gave way to tocsin-soundings from the orchestral bells, the music’s movement ritualized, as both clarinet and different orchestral sections sang the last of their songs.

I enjoyed the Shostakovich-like aspect of the third movement’s grotesqueries, especially the tuba’s contributions to the fun in places, the soloist at another point “jamming it” with bongo drum and trombones – wonderful stuff! We were disconcerted when the soloist peremptorily walked off the performing platform, though the music kept going, the orchestra continuing to build the structure to the point where the players suddenly broke off and began animatedly talking with one another – obviously conveying  conjecture as to where their clarinetist had disappeared to!

After the timpanist had called his colleagues to order, the brass announced the soloist’s reappearance with stentorian voices. The last movement’s Wedding Dance” aspect expressed itself with contrasting moods, wild rhythmic excitement followed by louring trombones leading a mournful melody. As the soloist bent his line every which way, the orchestra whispered amongst itself, ruminating upon likely outcomes. A brief irruption of the running dance-music introduced the soloist’s cadenza, music filled with the most enchanting and angular birdsong, and choreographed by Kriikku most entertainingly – a gentleman sitting behind me nearly had apoplexy at one point, so delighted was he with the soloist’s antics! There came a brief dance-passage, the clarinetist treading a measure before preparing to deliver his final flourish – and the music was over!

Grimmer purposes hammered their messages out at the beginning of the concert’s second half, with the opening of Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra – I seriously parted company with the conductor at the beginning of the work, finding the opening far too timpani-dominated, and completely drowning out the lower strings’ announcement of the opening motif – force and emphasis was all very well, but this was, for me, too blatant – I heard the work “live” for the first time in the 1970s conducted by Vaclek Smetacek, who allowed the pounding rhythms sufficient force while bringing out the defiant syncopated angularities of the string utterances right from the beginning.

That grumble out of the way, I thought the rest of the work an absolutely thrilling experience as presented here – Harth-Bedoya encouraged his musicians to “play out” at almost all times, while preserving the clarity of the textures, as with the celeste’s unearthly echoing of the work’s opening pulsatings right at the movement’s end. Then, during the second movement, such magic was woven by the scampering strings and the spooky winds, whose beautifully-wrought exchanges were an absolute delight to the ear. The cunningly-wrought orchestral dovetailing reminded me throughout this movement of Holst’s “Mercury the Winged Messenger” from “The Planets” in a way that no other performance I’d heard seemed to have previously done.

With great portent and dark purpose the finale was launched, amid growlings from the piano and an almost primordial wail from the cor anglais, with other winds joining in. Strings built the sound-progressions and brass added their weight to the textures unerringly, as the passacaglia’s fifteen variations strode across the soundstage, each “fretting and strutting….before being heard no more”. The powerful outbursts from brass and percussion properly galvanized these scenarios, with various solos from the winds keeping the textural colours varied and volatile, and sometimes at exciting odds with one another! And the “exuberant twist” at the very end (nicely described as such in the programme notes) brought the work to an exciting and rousing conclusion.

Very great credit to the orchestra throughout all of these three works, most excitingly directed by Miguel Harth-Bedoya, and in colourful collaboration with the characterful Kari Kriikku and his clarinet. Nobody should let the unfamiliarity of the composers’ names put them off going to this concert – from beginning to end, it’s a thrilling, no-holds-barred journey, well worth the experience!

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